Representation and inclusion on TV appear to be on the steady uptick, but a closer look shows that progress is a minuscule move of the needle. We are seeing more black, Latino and Asian representation, but as we look deeper into specific portrayals within these ethnicities and races we have seen a stagnant pool of stereotypes — especially with regard to Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) actors.
According to a new study presented by MENA Arts Advocacy Coalition (MAAC) titled “Terrorists and Tyrants: Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) Actors in Prime Time and Streaming Television”, there is a major gap in representation when it comes to MENA actors. When MENA actors are on TV they largely portray — you guessed it — terrorists and tyrants, stereotypical roles that have existed since the dawn of Hollywood.
“Most people thought the push for diversity would create an uptick in roles, but the opposite happened,” said Azita Ghanizada, actress, Founder of MAAC. “I discovered that MENA performers were counted as Caucasian and unable to fill diverse hiring quotas. This hole in Hollywood’s inclusion practices led to devolving portrayals for many MENA performers. If we weren’t willing to be marginalized and reinforce dangerous stereotypes, our ability to work dramatically decreased.”
The study examined 242 primetime, first-run scripted TV and streaming shows between Sept. 1, 2015 and Aug. 31, 2016 to analyze the representation of MENA actors.
There are more than 9 million Americans from the Middle East and North Africa in the US, which accounts for 3.2% of the population. According to the study, which surveyed the 2015-2016 television season, there are only 1% of MENA actors in regular roles on TV. Once again, the MENA actors are limited to roles that fall under the umbrella of terrorism and religious tyranny. To be more specific, 78% of MENA characters on primetime TV appear as trained terrorists, agents, soldiers or tyrants.
Nancy Wang Yuen, co-author of the study says, “Hollywood needs to move beyond tyrants and terrorists when portraying MENAs.” She added, “Such stereotypes can have harmful effects on audience perceptions. More complex and relatable MENA characters can counter anti-Muslim and anti-MENA sentiment and policies.”
The study found that 92% of scripted TV shows have no MENA series regulars. Twenty shows in 2015-2016 featured MENA actors as regular cast members. Of the shows included in the study, 96% have at least one white series regular.
In addition to 78% of MENA actors portrayed as terrorists, agents or soldiers, it was found that 67% of MENA characters speak with an accent, reinforcing the stereotype that MENAs are foreigners.
Even though primetime TV has the tendency to reinforce stereotypes, there has been some progress. Iranian-American actress Necar Zadegan plays a divorce attorney on Bravo’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce while Turkish-American actor Ennis Esmer plays tennis pro Nash in the Amazon comedy Red Oaks. And let’s not forget that Emmy Award-winning actor Rami Malek, an Egyptian-American, stars as Elliot Alderson, a computer hacker and one of the most complex characters on television.
Other actors featured in the study that you may or may not have realized are MENA include Yara Shahidi in ABC’s Black-ish, Jamie Camil of Jane the Virgin, Tony Shalhoub from BrainDead, Michael Malarkey in The Vampire Diaries, Nasim Pedrad in Scream Queens, and others. The final breakdown included 23 MENA series regulars, 11 women, 12 men, 12 monoracial and 11 multiracial.
The study proved that we have far to go when it comes to inclusion — but not all hope is lost because it seems like Hollywood is on board with featuring underrepresented voices without being so stereotypical. There are Middle Eastern shows in development including an ABC comedy about a Middle Eastern American family of superheroes being developed by Larry Wilmore and Bassem Youssef as well as a Netflix’s first Arabic original series, a young adult supernatural drama Jinn, from exec producers Elan and Rajeev Dassani.
There may not be an influx of MENA shows on the horizon, but with the changing landscape of TV and emerging talent refusing to be unheard elbowing their way to the front the crowd it seems like change is inevitable.
The full 2017 report can be read at www.menaartsadvocacy.com.